When you think about what happened just 500 years ago in Germany – 95 points of discussion were posted on the community bulletin board, a church door – a lowly monk unintentionally set in motion a sequence of events that changed the world more than any other single action by a human being since the resurrection of Christ.
My missionary friend in South Africa, Dr. Peter Hammond, has provided for us profound insights that can impact our priorities for generations to come if we’ll take them to heart.
Western civilization has been blessed with the greatest freedom, productivity and prosperity ever known in history. The liberty, standards of justice and creativity enjoyed in Western civilization is a direct result of the Protestant Reformation of the 16th Century.
First Things First
Our Lord Jesus Christ taught:
“But seek first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness and all these things shall be added to you.”
The Question of Authority
Martin Luther’s earnest quest for peace with God, intensive study of the Scriptures and 95 Theses challenge over the unethical fund raising tactics of the papacy, led to primary questions on authority. Martin Luther’s love for the Word of God and dedication to truth led him to challenge the entire ecclesiastical and political authority of the Roman Catholic church and the Holy Roman Empire:
“Unless I am convinced by Scripture or by clear reasoning that I am in error – for popes and councils have often erred and contradicted themselves – I cannot recant, for I am subject to the Scriptures I have quoted; my conscience is captive to the Word of God. It is unsafe and dangerous to do anything against one’s conscience. Here I stand, I cannot do otherwise. So help me God. Amen.”
Freedom of Conscience
In this incredibly courageous stand against the assembled political and religious might of Europe, Luther argued for freedom of conscience based upon the authority of Scripture alone. Until that time, the prevailing practice was authoritarianism, both in church and state.
All religions supported the monarchy, aristocracy and authoritarianism. However, Martin Luther and the Reformers maintained that because of the depravity of man, no human authority could be trusted as absolute. “Popes and councils have often erred and contradicted themselves.” He rejected ecclesiastical totalitarianism and championed the principle of Sola Scriptura – The Bible alone is our ultimate authority.
By translating the Bible from the original Greek and Hebrew into the common tongue and making it widely available to both nobles and peasants, Luther championed universal education and literacy, the priesthood of all believers, freedom of conscience and religious liberty.
Love in Action
By rejecting the sacramental system of the medieval Roman Catholic church, with its encouragement of the devout retreating into monasteries and convents to subjectively seek inner holiness and salvation within themselves, the Reformers freed society from this introverted and ultimately selfish obsession. The Reformation released that energy and redirected it to seeking to serve God and our neighbor, putting feet to our faith and love in action.
The Protestant Reformation freed society from the religious subjectivism and stagnation, which had crippled progress. The Reformation redirected the energy of Christians towards applying the Lordship of Christ to all areas of life – intellectually, politically, socially and economically.
The Protestant doctrine of the priesthood of all believers became the foundation for modern representative governments. The equality of all men before God and the law undermined the absolutism of monarchs, emperors and popes who set themselves above the law.
Instead of the prevailing Rex Lex (the king is the law), the Reformers championed Lex Rex (the Law is king!) No one is above God’s Law. Jesus Christ is the King of kings and the Lord of lords. Everyone is under God’s Law.
Sola Scriptura eroded the foundations of ecclesiastical and political totalitarianism. The Protestant emphasis on the priesthood of all believers and the supreme authority of Scripture led to the concept of representative government and constitutional authority as the supreme law of the land.
Liberty of Conscience
Martin Luther wrote that Christians should be free of the arbitrary control of both church and state. God alone is the Lord of the conscience. Luther wrote:
“It is with the Word that we must fight, by the Word we must overthrow and destroy that which has been set up by violence. I will not make use of force against the superstitious and unbelieving… liberty is the very essence of Faith… I will preach, discuss and enlighten; but I will constrain none, for Faith is a voluntary act… I have stood up against the pope, indulgences and papists, but without violence or tumult. I put forward God’s Word; I preached and I wrote – this was I all I did, the Word did all… God’s Word should be allowed to work alone… it is not in my power to fashion the hearts of men… I can get no further than the ears; the hearts I cannot reach. And since I cannot pour faith into their hearts, I cannot, nor should I, force anyone to have faith. That is God’s work alone, who causes faith to live in the heart… we should preach the Word, but results must be left solely to God’s good pleasure.”
By emphasizing the Biblical doctrine of Faith as a gift of God, Luther undermined the Catholic Inquisition and provided the Theological foundations for religious liberty and freedom of conscience.
Faith and Freedom
The social implications of this spiritual Reformation were enormous. The doctrine of Sola Scriptura led to constitutionalism. The priesthood of all believers led to the concept of representative republics and democratic forms of government. Religious liberty and freedom of conscience led to freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of association and all the other out-workings of political and social freedom.
Foundations for Freedom
The 19th Century German historian, Leopold Von Ranke described John Calvin as the “virtual founder of America.” Reformer John Calvin laid the foundations for the English and American Bills of Rights, freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of religion, the privilege against self-incrimination, the independence of judiciary, the right of habeas corpus, the right not to be imprisoned without cause and other key principles of separation of powers, checks and balances, constitutional and representative government and much more.
The Protestant Work Ethic
Sociologist, Max Weber’s book, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1908), documented that the free market economy was a product of the Protestant Reformation. Free market capitalism had historically flourished in those Protestant countries where the Calvinist principles of hard work, honesty, frugality, thrift, punctuality and doctrine of a Christian work ethic had created conditions for the greatest innovations and successes in economics ever experienced in all of history.
Christian Roots of America
In 1830, French historian Alexis de Tocqueville, in Democracy in America, observed that the unprecedented liberty, justice and productivity achieved in the United States of America was a direct result of its Christian principles. “There is no country in the world where the Christian religion maintains a greater influence over the souls of men than in America.”
The Fruit of Faith
Historian Carlton Hayes, in Christianity and Western Civilization, observed:
“Wherever Christian ideals have been generally accepted and their practice sincerely attempted, there is a dynamic liberty; and wherever Christianity is being ignored or rejected, persecuted or chained to the state, there is tyranny.”
Jewish author, Kevin Abrams, has written:
“The American civilization rests on the basic principles of Christian morality, which have their origin in the Scriptures… without the Bible as the constellation that guides the American ship of state the whole edifice that guides the American civilization collapses.”
Liberty and Justice
Professor Alvin Schmidt, in Under the Influence – How Christianity Transformed Civilization, concludes:
“In whatever nations Christianity has had a prominent presence, there have been marked improvements in liberty and justice as opposed to societies that have been and continue to be dominated by non-Christian religions.”
The Reformation Heritage
Ideas have consequences. There is no doubt that the Reformation in Europe during the 16th Century has to be seen as one of the most important epochs in the history of the world. The Reformation gave us the Bible – now freely available in our own languages. The Reformation pioneered the principles of religious freedom, liberty of conscience, the rule of Law, separation of powers and constitutional limited republics. All of these foundational principles were unthinkable before the Reformation.
Battle cries of the Reformation
The Reformers emphasized God’s Sovereignty, that Scripture alone is the final authority that Christ alone is the Head of the Church that justification is by God’s grace alone, on the basis of the finished work of Christ, received by faith alone.
The Reformers teachings on the depravity of man, the Covenant and Church government have influenced positive political developments in liberty throughout the Western world and beyond, establishing checks and balances, the separation of powers and constitutional authority.
All of us are beneficiaries of this tremendous movement for Faith and freedom. If you love liberty, you need to re-examine the history and the principles of the Reformation.
The Professor Who Changed the World
“If I profess with the loudest voice and clearest exposition every portion of the truth of God, except precisely that point which the world and the devil are at that moment attacking, then I am not confessing Christ, however boldly I may be professing Him. Where the battle rages, there the loyalty of the soldier is proved; and to be steady on all the battlefront besides is mere flight and disgrace if he flinches at that point.”
Why not consider what some of the 95 theses of reformation need to be restated in our own lives today? I would suggest that each of us take to heart the idea of formulating a clear list of the things we realize need to be changed in our lives, in our society, and perhaps in our own churches. A few of the things that Dr. Peter Hammond has included on Frontline Ministries’ webpage are listed below.
1. Our Lord and Master, Jesus Christ, commanded us to: “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is near” (Matthew 4:17). The whole life of a believer must be one of repentance.
2. This cannot be interpreted as a token gesture of commitment, nor a technical salvation that is all theory and no experience.
3. Biblical repentance involves conviction: a change of mind; contrition: a change of heart; and conversion: a change of life. It is not enough to confess our sin, we also need to reject sin, to loathe it and to forsake it. Repentance involves a change of mind, a change of heart, a change of habits and a change of behavior.
4. “Now, therefore, says the Lord, turn to Me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning. So rend your heart and not your garments; return to the Lord your God, for He is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and of great kindness…” Joel 2:12-13
5. This was the message of the Apostle Peter on the Day of Pentecost: “Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the Name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” Acts 2:38
6. This was the message of the early Church: “Repent therefore and be converted, that your sins may be blotted out, so the times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord.” Acts 3:19
7. The heart of the Gospel is a changed life in Christ.
8. God is a Holy God and His righteous standards are seen in His Law. Man is sinful and we need to repent from our wickedness and trust in Christ.
9. This repentance and faith is to be evident in obedience to Christ, and a willingness to sacrifice and to suffer persecution for Christ. To those who turn to Him in repentance and faith, God promises great blessings, rewards and eternal life.
10. Before He returned to Heaven, our Lord Jesus Christ commanded His followers: “But repentance and remission of sins should be preached in His Name to all nations…” Luke 24:47
11. Salvation is by the grace of God alone, received by faith alone, on the basis of Christ’s blood atonement on the Cross of Calvary alone.
12. Biblical Salvation always involves a change of behavior. “Let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts; let him return to the Lord and He will have mercy on him; and to our God, for He will abundantly pardon.” Isaiah 55:7
13. Those who teach that as long as you believe you are saved, regardless of how you behave, are false teachers. The Scripture makes clear that just as repentance without faith is not true repentance, so faith without repentance is not true faith. For repentance and faith are two sides of the same coin. Belief always affects behavior.
14. “Thus also faith by itself, if it does not have works is dead. But someone will say, you have faith, and I have works. Show me your faith without your works and I will show you my faith by my works… for as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also.” James 2:17-26
15. The Scripture warns us not to harden our hearts (Psalm 95:8). Blessed is the man who always fears the Lord, but he who hardens his heart falls into trouble (Proverbs 28:14).
16. “Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the Kingdom of God? Do not be deceived. Neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor homosexuals, nor sodomites, nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners will inherit the Kingdom of God. And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified by the Name of the Lord Jesus and by the Spirit of our God.” 1 Corinthians 6:9-11
17. The Lord is close to the broken-hearted and He saves those who are crushed in spirit (Psalm 34:18). The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit, a broken and contrite heart (Psalm 51:17). The Lord promises to hear and heal the responsive and humble heart (2 Kings 22:19).
18. “Cast away from you all the transgressions which you have committed, and get yourselves a new heart, and a new spirit. For why should you die…?” Ezekiel 18:31
19. Those who claim that we can accept Jesus as Savior, without submitting to Him as Lord, are false teachers. It would not have been sufficient for Moses to have proclaimed to the Hebrews, who were slaves in Egypt, that they should accept that in Yahweh they had perfect freedom, whilst leaving them in bondage and under the yoke of slavery in Egypt.
20. Nothing less than deliverance from Egypt, freedom from the bondage of slavery, would have been adequate. God’s eternal purposes required the people of Israel to survive the Passover, leave Egypt, cross through the Red Sea and be established as a free people in the Promised Land.
21. Sin is serious. Yet we are far too tolerant of sin. “God now commands all men everywhere to repent.” Acts 17:30
22. Sin is more defiling than dirt, more dangerous than an unexploded bomb, more life threatening than a deadly disease, more insidious than a virus. “Seek the Lord while He may be found, call upon Him while He is near.” Isaiah 55:6
23. “The Law of the Lord is perfect, converting the soul.” Psalm 19:7. The first duty of the Gospel preacher is to declare God’s Law and show the nature of sin. Failure to use the Law is almost certain to result in false hope, the introduction of a false standard of Christian experience, and to fill the church with false converts. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom (Proverbs 9:10).
24. They will never accept grace until they tremble before a just and holy Law. The Law of the Lord is the schoolmaster that leads us to Christ, that we may be justified by faith (Galatians 3:24). Salvation is by the grace of God alone, received by faith alone.